For eclectic band, it's 12 years of fun

Photo Credit:  PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANDREW WYATT  - Andrew Wyatts Images captured at a recent Colorado concert by MarchFourth! shows Polly Pepper and Stasz dancing.A lot has transpired since March 4, 2003, when a loose collection of some 35 musicians led by John Averill and Dan Stauffer called themselves the simplistic “MarchFourth Marching Band” and played during Mardi Gras partying at Level, now known as Star Theater.

It’s called MarchFourth! now, and they take themselves very seriously. They don’t march up and down Alberta Street or anywhere else, as in the early days. They make CDs, tour and play concerts in every place except Portland to spread the word — other than various local events, including their annual birthday bash in Portland. This year, it’ll be nights of music March 3 and 4 at the Crystal Ballroom.

“We thought it was a good time and everybody loved it right off the bat,” says Stauffer, the band’s manager and cymbal player, of the March 4, 2003, concert. “We shrunk our numbers, started touring, fit into our bus and went from being a community band to a touring act,” sporting a booking agent and making innumerable stops in the United States and Canada, as well as China (2013) and Europe (2010, 2011). “We have traveled continuously, playing festivals and clubs and civic parties — you name it. It was 176 days traveling last year.”

Don’t mistake him, though. They are still very much part of the people — in many cities on tour they stay with fans — and good rollicking fun. “M4” has evolved on stage, paring to 17 members — 13 musicians and four dancers/acrobats/stilt-walkers — and consistently integrating new musicians, including college grads.

“Let’s say, (musicians) are more prepared and professional than in the past,” Averill says. “I really like the attitude of the band right now. People take it more seriously than ever. Frankly, the music is tighter.

“The original crew was kind of rough, and it was a party atmosphere,” he adds. “It’s now a total legit, big stage show ... It’s pretty much an energy dance band with circus stuff thrown in there.”

“These are highly creative people who think completely outside the box and create all kinds of music at once,” says Stevie Jay of Charlottesville, Va., a big fan and publicist. “With the hulas, stilt-walkers, dancers and people literally flying around, and music coming at you full blast, it’s part of what makes you high from it. It’s sheer joy and energy.”

The original inspiration behind the band remains — fun-loving, eclectic, and distinctively ours after coming out in the burgeoning days of “Keep Portland Weird” and the Alberta Arts District. Says Averill: “It was a mojo we all felt.”

MarchFourth! will go to New Orleans next month to work on its fourth CD. Averill says the band hasn’t nailed down one specific genre yet, still playing jazz, funk, Afro-beat, Eastern European gypsy brass, samba, Latin, big band and rock. The best he can describe it: “steamfunk,” a play off the Victorian/sci-fi subculture.

The band played cover tunes for much of the first year, before former member Robin Jackson (Vagabond Opera), Jason Wells (Trashcan Joe) and others started to write songs and the band played more gigs.

“We bribed people to come to practice with PBR,” Stauffer says. “We didn’t know what we were going to be. We were a bunch of pirates.”

Stauffer and Averill knew each other from their college days in Los Angeles. Stauffer, Averill, Nathan Wallway and sisters Nayana and Faith Jennings were the MarchFourth! founding members. Jenny DiDonato (snare, conga) and Daniel Lamb (trombone) have been longtime members of the band, as has Katie Presley (trumpet) — Presley played the first gig at Level, and she has been with MarchFourth! on her second stint since 2008 and seen its growth.

“It’s one of the best social experiments that plays out on stage,” Presley says. “We talk about things that we’re going to do on the bus, and come up with weird stuff and costumes. ‘Hey, what if we tried it on stage and see the reaction?’ Sometimes it’s lukewarm, sometimes amazing, sometimes out-of-this-world amazing.”

Oh, and the bus travel? The first bus was named Razzle Dazzle, but the second bus hasn’t been named — it went by El Expresso in its former home in Tijuana, Presley adds.

It has been retrofitted, and sports 10 queen bunk beds and eight other singles for 17 performers and crew members.

“We can definitely entertain ourselves,” Presley says.

After the birthday concerts, the band will play in California — Arcata, San Francisco, Redding — then venture to New Orleans and stops at the Festival International in Lafayette, La., and the Wakarusa Festival in Ozark, Ark. It will return home for the Waterfront Blues Festival, attend the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, Calif., and again play at the Oregon Country Fair.

Jackson and others, including Presley, branched off to form and operate the Joy Now Arts Camp (, which basically teaches kids the M4 type of music and showmanship.

The birthday shows are both at the Crystal, 1332 W. Burnside: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 3 (including kids, serving as Joy Now fundraiser), $13-$16 adults/$10-$13 kids (4-12); and 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 4 (grownups only), $24 in advance, $28 day of show.

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